By Ben Dooley, AFP
GUANGZHOU — A long time ago in country far, far away, mainland Chinese authorities managed to obtain a copy of America’s ultimate cultural weapon, a blockbuster movie with enough special effects to wow an entire planet.
Summoned to a small theater in the southern city of Guangzhou in 1980, artist Song Feideng was shown “Star Wars” and instructed to transform it into a traditional Chinese comic book, known as a “lianhuanhua,” to promote scientific achievement to China. Song was one of the first people in China to see George Lucas’ magnum opus, at a time when it was still banned — a marked contrast to the status of the series’ most recent instalment in a market Hollywood increasingly sees as crucial to success. “The objective was to take the world’s advanced science and popularize it in China,” Song, who worked for a state-owned publisher at the time, told AFP. He replaced the movie’s X-wing spacecraft with Soviet rockets and jet fighters. In one illustration, Luke Skywalker wears a cosmonaut’s bulky spacesuit, while rebel leaders are dressed in Western business suits. Darth Vader appears alongside a triceratops. At the time, China was emerging from the isolation of the Mao Zedong era and “Star Wars” had still not been granted a release by the mainland Communist authorities, three years after it hit Western cinemas. The movie “was very novel, very exciting,” Song said, adding that he felt as if he had seen a “glimpse of the world.”
A New Hope The project came amid a brief flowering of Chinese science fiction following Mao’s decade-long Cultural Revolution, when the arts were reduced to glorifying the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Mao’s decision to send intellectuals to work in the countryside had badly affected basic scientific research. Song spent the period on the then poverty-stricken Hainan island, producing propaganda slideshows. Science fiction has had a fraught history in China, where genre pioneer Ye Yonglie once called it “one of the barometers of the political climate.” Shortly after the 1977 U.S. release of “Star Wars,” the CCP mouthpiece the People’s Daily attacked it as a fantasy that demonstrated how Americans’ “dissatisfaction with reality” had pushed them to “seek comfort in an illusory fairyland.” But the following year, as China began to reopen to the world, Beijing declared sci-fi critical to rehabilitating the country’s sciences, releasing a flood of almost 1,000 new titles. A translated “Star Wars” script appeared on the mainland as early as March 1979, while Song’s comic is believed to be the first illustrated standalone. It sold briskly, he recalled. “I could buy a TV, a stereo … it was just unimaginable.” Communism Strikes Back But the initial hopes of the country’s “reform and opening” quickly soured as artists began to criticize the government. Speculative stories imagining a China without communism were not the plotlines authorities were looking for, and they moved to ban science fiction again.